Culture First, Business Second — BrainStorm Raises $6.4M Series A Round

Of course you always believe in your opportunity and what you’re doing, but you’re not so naive to think that you could have blind spots. When outsiders come in and commit in the way our investors have committed, that tends to validate some of our thoughts.

American Fork-based BrainStorm has raised a $6.4 million Series A round led by Kickstart Seed Fund, with participation from angel investor Jeremy Andrus.

“We have a really strong corporate culture and it’s critical to us and our employees,” said Eric Farr, Principal of BrainStorm. “It’s based around giving back to the community, it’s based around making sure this is a high-energy, fun place to be, and we want to be in a place where we can continue that culture. We turned down money before we had other alternatives because we didn’t think we could maintain those things. That’s not worth it to us. Kickstart quickly got our vision, realized the value of Brainstorm, and we came to terms pretty quickly because they got it in the same way that we got it. That was really refreshing.”

Unless you’ve shirked all sense of duty and gone to grow weed deep in the hills of California, you realize that the large majority of your adult life will be spent working. This leaves you with basically three options. Option number one: latch on at a large corporation, spend the next 40 years as an easily forgotten cog in the machine, then retire and spend the remainder of days playing angry, bitter golf with angry, bitter friends. Only the golf part of this equation sounds appealing, so let’s cross option one off the list.

Option number two is even more grim: swearing you’ll never serve “The Man”, you grow your hair out super-long, lose all sense of self-grooming, and spend the foreseeable future backpacking through Europe and hanging out at broken-down hostels, bumming a hit of peyote from the occasional passerby. After 20 years, you finally scrape together enough money for a plane ticket home, where you return and hole up in your sister’s guest bedroom, playing C-minus covers of Bob Marley until death knocks quietly at your door. Pretty much no part of this equation sounds appealing except bad guitar covers (and peyote, I guess, if that’s how you roll), so let’s just move on.

Option number three is a beacon of hope shining through the murky darkness, a gentle reminder that a job doesn’t have to be dull and monotonous, suppressing all sense of personality and desire until only a husk remains. This option is centered on the idea of building and sustaining a healthy, flourishing company culture, one that encourages you to embrace your loftiest dreams and help lift up your community, a culture so interesting and electric that showing up to work turns into the highlight of your day, rather than something to dread.

“What do people want out of their jobs?” said John Wade, Principal of BrainStorm. “They want an opportunity to make an impact and a difference. People want to change the world, they want to have some leeway in how they approach their jobs. I think we do that, we give them opportunities to bring the talents they have and run. We’re definitely not micro-managers in our approach, but if we hire the right people, we don’t have to be — just let them go and get out of the way.”

BrainStorm has been named to Outside’s Best Places To Work list for the last four years, including a #12 finish in 2015 that ranks them highest amongst Utah-based companies. Their office is adorned with all the things you would expect from a culture-dedicated business, drum kit in one corner and motorcycle in the other, with an entire wall dedicated to giving employees a place to freely express their personalities and humor.

There’s also a healthy dose of humanitarian efforts, including a monthly budget for each employee to draw from as a pick-me-up for those they come across in need. Company charity projects are done in alternating months, and BrainStorm is constantly searching for ways to be impactful in the community.

“We can have a job candidate that has everything on paper, they could definitely do what we need them to do, but if they’re not a cultural fit, it’s a no,” said Farr. “Culture is that important. There was a time when John and I had much more to do with the culture, but as we continue to grow, our impact on that is definitely diluted and it becomes much more about our employees and what they’re doing to create that culture.”

I now realize I’ve written 700 words and not described what BrainStorm does. Bad writing on my part? Definitely, but it also drives home the point that culture is paramount to what they do. That being said, a business obviously can’t function if it doesn’t have a viable way of generating money — culture can only take you so far.

Brainstorm has been profitable for many years because they have a legitimate business model, one that concentrates on teaching employees how to use and maximize company software. What began as physical, face-to-face lessons has transitioned into a software-based model that leaves end users knowledgeable about every detail and feature of the software they’re using.

“Our end goal is to train end users, not IT pros,” said Farr. “When you think of technical training, most companies train IT professionals or developers. Brainstorm has always focused entirely on the end user in the enterprise space. We go into larger companies, typically Fortune 2000, and when they make a transition from one desktop application to another, there’s tens of thousands of employees that have to deal with this. That’s the core of our business.”

A close partnership with Microsoft, that Farr estimates is used at a 90%+ rate in our market, ensures BrainStorm has ample opportunity to continue to expand. So does $6.4 million, the first outside funds taken on during Wade and Farr’s 12+ years owning and running the company.

“The platform has machine-learning to know what you want as an individual, what is most beneficial to you,” Wade said. “Not every person in an organization ends up on the same training path, so it customizes that in a scalable way for the software. Second, learning is definitely a step along the path but learning isn’t the goal, doing is. You have to change that behavior. The platform puts into place steps for the user, where not only do they learn through tutorials, but takes them through ways to put that knowledge into practice and apply it.”

At a lot of companies, business takes precedent over culture — if cultural sacrifices have to be made in the name of more business, so be it. BrainStorm is not one of these companies. They have a vision that is founded upon a strong culture, one that promotes healthy workers and a healthy community. If you fit into that culture, then the business can begin.

“Of course you always believe in your opportunity and what you’re doing, but you’re not so naive to think that you could have blind spots,” Wade said. “When outsiders come in and commit in the way our investors have committed, that tends to validate some of our thoughts.”

Published 12/3/2015